Alice

Her smile.  It comes to me before the hammer falls.  It’s crooked, like a picture hung on a wall, the wire sliding around the nail.  It’s all I have time for, a memory like the flash of a bulb, leaving only the ghost of an image burned on the back of my eyes.  The hammer falls, metal on metal, the tip dinging into the end of the bullet.

This is the point where you hear nothing.  The bullet is faster than the report.  Somewhere, on the other side of the wall, a young couple is post-coital sleepy and watching TV.  The girl will jump.  The man might investigate.  Maybe she pushes him to, maybe he gets up and looks out the window, twitching the curtain to the side before returning to bed and nuzzling in.  It’s the manager’s problem, he tells himself.

            There is the sound of metal on metal, and I jump.  Nothing happens.  The pistol is suddenly heavy, and I lower it until it lies in my lap.  I look at it, small and black and mean.  I think of Alice and the way she looked in the end, skin and bones, the way her ribs would show even under her shirt, the way her cheeks had fallen in, like sails without wind.  I lift the pistol, its barrel an idiot eye staring blindly.  I close my eyes, and pull the hammer back.  Next door, someone starts the shower, the sound like heavy rain.

Summer.  Lights from the city hang in the air, dew-hazed halos of reds and whites.  She stands under the overhang where the rain drizzles down in thick ropes, the edge of the concrete apron dark and wet.  She’s looking out at the city, and I step behind her and light a cigarette.  The smoke drifts into the mist, raindrops tearing it to tatters.  I watch her for a moment, the set of her shoulders, and the curl of her hair.  She turns to me and smiles and steps backward into the rain.  It plasters her hair down and turns her clothes dark.  She raises her arms, and I throw the cigarette away and step to her.  She wraps slick warm arms around me and stands on tiptoe to kiss me.  I close my eyes and can feel my heartbeat in my lips.  I hear the rain, ticking against the metal roof.  Tick, tick,

            TICK.  The hammer falls on the bullet, and nothing happens.  For the second time, I lower the pistol.  Something itches in the back of my mind, and I frown in concentration, but nothing comes.  Next door, the shower is silent, and I think of the couple over there, in love and bliss and unaware of all the things that lurk on the threshold, threatening joy, threatening life.  I think of Alice’s eyes, rheumy before their time.  I lift the pistol and draw the hammer back.  Lights flutter on the other side of the gauzy curtain over the window, and hazy globes of light travel down the opposite wall, top to bottom.  I think of falling leaves and close my eyes.

Fall.  The air is crisp and brittle, the promise of ice in the air.  We stand on the concrete apron of the driveway, the sun creeping downward, and talk of little things.  I can see the circles under her eyes, the exhaustion in her movements, and her breath.  She’s wearing a coat, russet-colored wool, with the big wooden buttons that fit through loops, and a stocking cap of the same color.  We’re talking, but I can’t remember the words.  She smiles, her teeth white, even whiter against the backdrop of orange and red and yellow, and pulls me in.  Her kiss, like mint after heat, and then she leans her head on my shoulder and we dance to no music.  I feel my heart beat, and keep time to it.  Tick, tick,

            TICK.  For the third time, the hammer falls on a dud.  I sit, my stomach trying to do one of those loops like you see planes do at air shows, and then rage wells up, fast and hot, and I throw the pistol at the wall.  It hits the plaster and leaves a dent, then clatters to the floor.  Next door, there’s the sound of bedsprings.

He’s looking out the window now, too scared to actually bang on the wall.  What if the man next door has a gun?

            I snort at this and rub my hands over my face.  I wait another minute, to see if the tears come.  When they do not, I stand and grab the room key and a jacket.  I shut off the lights and leave the pistol laying in the dark.

*

            Winter.  She’s lying in a hospital bed, one of those impersonal gray ones with the word Stryker labeled on the side.  The thin white hospital blankets aren’t enough, so I brought a couple from home, big quilted things with sunflowers and birds.  She would look like a child if it weren’t for the wires and lines snaking from beneath the covers.  I hold her hand, and it feels like bird bones under parchment.  I’m afraid I’ll hurt her and afraid to let her go.  She sleeps, her breathing barely stirring the quilt.  I watch her eyes dart back and forth beneath lids that are almost translucent, blue veins snaking across the skin.  I choke on my tears for her sake.  Inside, I am cold.

            I shove my hands deeper into my pockets and pretend I’m not cold.  There is a tree in the park downtown, an old oak whose branches spread out like a longhouse roof.  I walk there, the sidewalk slippery where one person or another hadn’t had the time or the energy to clear it.  The city is quiet this time of night, only the occasional car whispering past in the slush.  Lights dot the houses here and there.

The park is abandoned in the winter, only the infrequent tracks of a cross-country skier or squirrel denting the snow.  The tree is in the center, and I make my way through drifts, the cold wet soaking into my jeans, numbing my ankles.  I stop at the oak and run a hand over the gnarled bark.  I look up, and see the branches bare and skeletal reaching to the sky, a hand holding the moon in winter.  My fingers touch a gouge in the bark, and I look back down, to a heart cut into the tree, CH + AE dug into the black bark.  I trace the letters.  I remember thinking how cheesy it was, how cliché.   She just smiled and punched my shoulder in that playful way, and did it anyways.

I feel the bark for a moment more, and turn away.

*

            Unlike the city, the highway is always busy.  I stand at the crosswalk, where Main becomes 96, and watch the trucks and cars and vans whistle by.  I close my eyes and lift a foot.

Winter.  She’s awake.  Just barely.  She squeezes my hand, and her strength is pitiful.  I break a little inside, thinking of the way her arms would wrap around me, hold me tight, and now the best she can do is flutter her fingers against mine.  She looks at me and takes a breath.  It’s a struggle just to speak now.

            “Do you think Dante was right?  Heaven, Hell, Purgatory?”  She asks.

            I shrug and try to think of something comforting to say.  She goes on without me.

            “I hope not.  And I hope so.  I mean, the bad people – maybe they need that.  But I hope there’s something more for me.  I’ve been good, right?”

            She smiles, and it’s crooked and wan.  I stroke her hair, and push the plunger on the little syringe I’d smuggled in.

            “Tell me I’ve been good.”  She says.

            She closes her eyes.

            I take a step and hear a horn.  Behind my eyelids, the world gets brighter.  The horn seems to blare for eternity, a thousand angels playing a thousand trumpets, and the world turns white behind my eyelids until it’s all I see.  I hang in the white for a minute, and the world washes out.

*

            Her smile.  It comes to me before the hammer falls.  It’s crooked, like a picture hung on a wall, the wire sliding around the nail.  It’s all I have time for, a memory like the flash of a bulb, leaving only the ghost of an image burned on the back of my eyes.  The hammer falls, metal on metal, the tip dinging into the end of the bullet.

This is the point where you hear nothing.

            Dante was right.

 

 

Bones and Gold

 

In the hills, gold. In the city, bones. Hammers on iron build the veins; bodies crushed to dust to make the streets. Under those streets, men and women gather, the dispossessed, the lost, and vagrant. They smell of sweat and garbage, of halitosis and illness, alcohol and antiseptic. They wear raggedy clothes on raggedy frames, and shuffle sore feet in tattered shoes in front of glowing barrels that warm calloused hands, the nails caked with filth. They talk in low tones, about things that had been and things that might be, and more, unlikely things.

Thomas talks about his wife and her breasts. Mostly he talks about her breasts. If you ask him about it, he waxes on about how time has rubbed her features out like sand blowing on stone, and her chest is all he has left. Carter goes on about how he’d had a 401k and a house on Sunset, between the palm trees and the yucca. He talks about his Porsche, but pronounces it Por-SHA, as if he’s speaking French. Tucker talks about men. Men who will pay you in booze or cash or a cheap meal in exchange for your lips wrapped around a cock, or a delivery, or a fight. Sometimes he talks about men in the sewers, who take you away to a government agency and stick needles in your brain until you’re either psychic or dead.

There are undercurrents, of mental illness, of deviance. You think that’s harsh. You think it’s hard that I describe it as deviance. Surely, there are better words. Surely, there are more understanding words. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean deviance like the preachers and the politicians categorize it. No one here gives a shit. I mean like Frank, who likes to pull the teeth from rats and use them to comb his pubes.  Or Shawn, who stares a little too long at the baby dolls in the tattered catalogs he carries around, the front of his pants tented. Deviance.

Under it all, though, is those eight words: In the hills, gold. In the city, bones.

I asked Tucker about it once. It was summer, and we were sweating by the tracks. Someone had scored a case of Bud, and we drank them warm while sitting in broken lawn chairs under the moon. Beside us, the rails of the Santa Fe stretched into the dark, the metal gleaming dully in the lunar light. Weeds crept between cracks in the ties, their heads poking up like sleepers waking. Moths fluttered by a patch of fiddleheads, their wings winking moonlight. Tucker belched.

“You ever hear about bones and gold?” He was looking over with a slight tilt to his head. His eyes were on my stomach, the skin still taut despite time and beer. I shook mine to break the silence.

He took a swig. A streamer escaped his mouth into his beard. “They say the city was founded by four brothers. Tough bastards, to the last. They made their fortune in the hills, digging for gold. You know how it was back then – money was yours if you put in the work. None of this credit, nine to five, two point five kids, taxes, and mortgage bullshit. You worked, you got paid. A man could live back then.

“Anyway, one of the brothers has it out with the other three. He owned the titles to the mines and wanted a bigger cut. So, they went in to inspect the place, and only three come out. No one knows what happened in there – the brothers claim the tunnel collapsed, and crushed him.

But, and here’s the but – a big ol’ Kardashian mound of butt – when I was growing up, my grandpap swore there was a procession the next night – horses pulling a carriage, all black. It went down to the cemetery, and then up High Street after. They found it the next morning all burnt out, and the driver’s throat slashed. Never did find the fourth brother’s body.”

“They got rich, though. Real rich. Built the city, built the roads, made the railroad come out this way. When they passed, there were no heirs, and they found the mines had been tapped years ago, but the city stayed rich.”

He paused for a moment, looking up at the stars. He belched again. “Know what I think? I think they made a deal down there, with the Devil. I think they traded a life, and their souls, for a bit of wealth.”

He threw his beer can into the weeds and cracked another. “Where else did they get the money? Mine was tapped. Where’d it come from? Ain’t normal.”

He finished talking, and we drank in silence for a bit. Something occurred to me.

“You ever go down there?”

“Shit, no.”

“Why?”

“Got to be under the stars. Small spaces make me nervous. Was why I could never own a Volkswagen.”

I sat for a moment, thinking. When you live the way I do, you have time for several things, thinking chief among them. When you think too much, strange things creep in. Superstition, mainly. You start to think if you do this thing, then maybe you get a fiver, or if you do that thing, maybe you find a good piece of food in the trash. Now, I’m not saying I thought I could meet the Devil and enrich my life, but I did think that maybe I could find a vein someone missed in that mine, and get a little rich. Fuck magic, I’m practical. I turned to Tucker.

“What if I get you some Valium?”

“What if what?”

“If I get you some Valium, would you go into the mine with me?”

He mulled it over, chewing his beard. Every now and then, he glanced at my chest and stomach, at the little V of muscle over my hips. I hoped he’d settle for the Valium. He belched again, and after a moment where I was sure I’d hear the words ‘for a blowjob’, he just nodded. Maybe he was weighing the possibility of being bit. Maybe he’d had the same thought I did – just one vein, that’s all a man needed. I hoped he was right.

I stood and staggered over to the shack beside the tracks and pissed on its wall, then raised a hand.

“See you tomorrow, Tuck.”

“Yeah yeah. Just make sure you get those pills.”

I shuffled off to my pallet under the trestle and laid down, visions of lucre dancing in my head.

*

The Valium came cheap – two tablets for a scrap of toast and some bacon. It was dear – I got it once a week from a short order cook downtown who didn’t mind sharing occasionally. I waited until Fergus finished chewing the meat, the still-warm scent making my stomach grumble, and held out my hand. He shook two little yellow pills into my palm and patted me on the back.

I found Tucker curled up in an old Army blanket on the lee side of the tracks, his beard matted with drool and leaves. I nudged him with my foot, and he roused slowly, grumbling, and sat up, wiping the sleep from his eyes and the foliage from his whiskers. He held out his hand and I passed him the pills, which he squirreled away in his vest. He sat up and dug out a water bottle, pulling from it for a long moment. He swished and spat, then stood and wandered over to the shed and pissed on the wall. He walked back to me, washing his face with his palms.

“When we going?”

I looked up. The sun was still low in the sky. “Pretty soon. We need to hike those hills, and I want to do it before it gets hot.”

He grunted and pulled a bag of jerky from his pack. He passed me a strip and chewed one himself. It was sweet, salty, and chewy. My mouth watered as I ate it, and I went to my own pack, grabbing the surplus canteen. I drank long and deep, the cool water clearing my throat, washing the sting of salt from my lips.

I took a couple of minutes to grab things I thought I’d need – the canteen, a couple Twinkies, a ball-peen hammer I’d stolen from a construction site (you never know when you need protection), and a hank of rope. I didn’t think I’d need everything, but better safe than sorry. Tucker appeared at my elbow a moment later, a small bag under his arm as well. His eyes were a bit glassy.

“Took the Valium already?”

He shrugged. “Just one. I get carsick.”

“You know we’re not driving.”

“Sure.”

I shook my head, and we headed out of the camp. No one really watched us leave, since it was normal for people to come and go. We trudged from the bridge and the rails to the east end of town. It didn’t take long for the sidewalks, already broken and grassy, to disappear, and the buildings to thin out. Eventually, those too disappeared, and we found ourselves in the hills. The grass was sere and brown, drought having grabbed the county by the balls and refusing to let go. For its part, the ground was uneven; the short blades of grass obscuring holes that threatened to turn an ankle or twist a knee. We followed the highway for a while but eventually had to cut across, into open country.

The sun had begun to climb, and the day was getting hot. Sweat rolled in rivulets down my back, staining my already dirty tee, and making Tucker smell like a kennel in a rainstorm. My throat itched, and I took a sip from the canteen, the water trickling down my throat and easing the dull ache there. Our feet kicked up dust, and the wind blew patches of it in small whirlwinds that played among the scrub brush and stunted weeds. We came to a rise in the earth, the hill sloping up, a scree of pebbles and sand underfoot, sliding away like eels beneath out heels.

At the top of the hill was another, the beginnings of the mountains, and cut into it was a small entrance, the sides and top shored up with thick beams. A sign on a post nearby warned us off.

PROPERTY OF MCLEOD INDUSTRIES

NO TRESPASSING

KEEP OUT

Tucker walked past it, spitting a big glob of phlegm at the metal square. It stuck then slid down, leaving a snail trail. I watched it for a moment, and then followed him in. Inside, the tunnel yawned like a ravenous throat, the light fading, and the dark speeding to the deep like a shadow locomotive. We pulled out glow sticks, snapping and shaking them until they glowed with an eerie green.

“How do we know what to look for?” Tucker was peering at the walls as if they would heave up nuggets at the right touch.

“It’s gold. You know. Shiny. Probably be harder to see, though, since there’s all this dirt.”

We walked a little apart, one on each wall as we went, eyes close to the stone and soil. Every now and then, I would stop and brush at the wall, dust sifting to my feet, hoping to uncover something. We’d pause while I did, Tucker following suit, then move on when it was just more dirt under that first layer. We walked like that for a while, our steps making small echoes in the dark and the silence.

The tunnel went deeper, and we came to a crossroads in the path. Tucker looked around, then back at me. His eyes were glassier. He’d taken the second Valium. He scratched his crotch and spit again.

“Which way?”

I looked around, kicked at the dust on the ground. It shifted, and I could make out a line cut into the earth. I stepped past Tucker and kicked at another spot, unearthing another line. I guessed they intersected somewhere further on. I imagined that under all that grime was a five-pointed star and a muddy brown stain that had once been red. I had an idea and pulled the hammer from my pack.

“Tuck. Come here.”

He wandered over, docile as a cow. The Valium was full-bore in his system now, and his eyes were half-lidded.

“Stand here.” I guided him to the center of the room. His feet kicked up more dust, and I could see an eye etched into the ground. He looked down.

“What’s that?”

“Not sure. See if you can clear it off.”

He scuffed his feet, his head hung. I raised the hammer.

“Think it’s some sort of fucki-”

The hammer came down hard. He finished the sentence with a guttural, choking sound, and his legs kicked once, dumping him on his ass. I slammed the hammer down again, and the room filled with a short crack and the smell of copper. Blood had begun to fountain from the hole I’d made with the hammer, and I stepped back to keep it off my shoes. Tucker just lay on the floor and twitched.

“Okay,” I addressed the dark. “Gimme what you got.”

I waited, for ten minutes, then fifteen. Nothing came, no hot wind from the throat, no susurration of voices. After twenty, I packed the hammer away and made my way out of the mine. The more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed I’d know if it worked. We don’t live in an age of signs and wonders unless that sign is Free Donuts. I passed the entrance and stepped into the sun. The tunnel was dark behind me, and still. I thought maybe I should have done something with the body, dug a little hole, or stuffed it in a mine cart. Then I thought no one is going to miss another bum. They’d probably say a little prayer in thanks of his suffering being over and then go to brunch, matter of fact.

I stretched and took a deep breath. I didn’t feel any luckier, or any richer, but I did feel better. Like someone had knocked the cobwebs from my brain for a bit. I walked back to the highway, my step light. A car passed, and something flew out the window, a bit of paper that fluttered in the wind. I snatched it from the ground as it circled around my shoe, and held it up to my face. It was a five, green and fresh, a simple crease through the center. I held it to my nose and smelled the paper. It smelled like perfume. It smelled as if my luck was changing.